Do you know what makes a permaculture property so unique?
Well, it all comes down to the very heart of permaculture – the permaculture design.
In contrast to conventional properties – i.e. homesteads, farms, or farmsteads, in permaculture, there is special emphasis on creating a masterplan for the site. This, when implemented, helps us be more efficient and productive while living a more stress-free lifestyle in tune with nature.
Now, in order to create our masterplan and achieve this type of abundant life, we have many permaculture design principles, tools, techniques, and ideas at our disposal. Permaculture is called a design science, after all.
However, it can all get a little overwhelming when it comes to putting it all into practice and designing a plot of land.
That’s why here I want to outline five key features it will need to have if you’re going to call it a permaculture property. I’ll also give you the practical tools to design these features.
In summary, a permaculture property is: 1. Ethical, with 2. Integrated components, 3. Energy efficient, while being 4. Adapted to natural forces, and finally 5. Resilient.
Let’s now dig deeper into each feature and find out what it’s all about and how you can design it for yourself.
Illustration: Permaculture Principles
The ultimate goal of building a permaculture property is to enhance the wellbeing of all living beings impacted by the project: you, your family, the people in the local community, and of course the local ecosystem with its microflora and -fauna.
It involves thinking far beyond the immediate short-term benefits, being concerned with the wellbeing of future generations.
With that in mind, when designing a permaculture property, you must factor in every element you think of choosing, the activities you think of performing, and the system you plan on creating through the three permaculture ethics – care of people, care of the earth, and return of the surplus.
It can be part of your design if it passes through the great ‘ethics’ filter.
This means, for example, that you can’t choose to create an eco-tourism area on your property with an “animal sanctuary” managed by low-paid workers, where you keep wild deer and boar in captivity so that tourists can experience feeding them by hand, all while you use the profits to fund your vacation in Bali.
If it’s harming the earth, it’s not permaculture.
If it’s harming people, it’s not permaculture.
If it’s purely extractive without returning the surplus, it’s not permaculture.
With our permaculture property, we should create a system that functions ethically, and that is the foundation of a permaculture property design.
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR DESIGN:
Design tool: The three ethics question.
Design goal: ‘The property and its components operate ethically.’
There is no design tool or method to implement this when designing your property. Instead, for every design move or decision, ask yourself:
“Is what I’m considering designing (this element, activity, or system) promoting the wellbeing of all conscious beings involved, and is it capable of returning the surplus (or part of it) in some shape or form.”
Illustration: Paul Kearsley
One of the main characteristics of a permaculture property is that all of its different components are interconnected, working together as an integrated system. There is continuous cycling whereby the outputs of one component fulfill the inputs of another.
This eliminates or at least minimizes the amount of labor, energy, or resources you need to invest in providing the inputs or eliminating the waste.
On a traditional small farm or homestead, generally nothing is actually connected to anything else. There might be chickens, pigs, cows, ducks, gardens, or orchards… but they’re all separate and usually located far from each other. As no component supplies the needs of others, it’s up to the farmer or homesteader to do all that extra work.
To avoid this perpetual struggle, you need to zoom out when designing your permaculture property and think about how each piece of the design behaves and what its relationship is with the other parts of the landscape.
The intention is to create a design whereby every need of every element is met within the system. So, for example, if the pig, chicken, or cow needs water and food, you need to find the elements within the system that will satisfy these needs.
And in the same manner, you need to create a design where every yield of every element is used within the system. So, for example, if your animals are producing manure, then the system or another component within the system must be able to use that manure.
Each cleverly designed linkage between design components means one less job for the property owner!
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR DESIGN:
Design tool: NEEDS AND YIELDS analysis
Design goal: ‘Components of the property are interconnected.’
STEP 1. Perform a ‘needs and yields’ analysis of a design component (element, activity, system) to discover how it functionally relates to the others.
Analyze the design component and consider:
1. What inputs or needs will it require? For example, chickens, among other things, need food and protection from the elements and predators.
2. What outputs or yields will it produce? For example, chickens scratch the ground looking for bugs and produce fertilizer high in nitrogen.
STEP 2. Determine the optimal location for the design component
Now think about where you can place the component so that its needs are met by another component.
For example, a food forest is an excellent place for chickens to roam about in, there are plenty of bugs, and the vegetation will provide some form of protection against winged predators. Plus, chickens’ outputs are precisely what a food forest needs – pest control and fertilization.
So by placing a chicken coop close to a food forest, both elements will have their needs met, and they can mutually assist each other. Moreover, now you don’t need to do the ground pest control by manually removing the fruit debris or dragging fertilizer from the chicken coop.
Placing the components in proximity and relation to each other will allow you to create a beneficial relationship between them.
STEP 3. Perform this matching process for all other components in your design.
3. Energy Efficient
One of the most commonly recognized characteristics of a permaculture property is permaculture zoning, i.e., splitting the property into different areas of use.
This is fundamentally about the intelligent use of energy and resources within the property.
You see, most property owners will place the different components of their property in a random location. For example, a house might be in one area, but a garden where they can pick fresh salad is 300 feet away.
Thoughtless positioning like this adds unnecessary mileage, and they end up walking hundreds of kilometers per year going to and from their gardens, barns, orchards, chickens… or skipping that salad for lunch after a second thought.
Permaculture properties are way more efficient, as we place various components of the property based on their frequency of use and required management. Not only do we save energy that way, but we eat more healthy salads!
The more we use something, the closer it is to the center of the activity. The less we use it, the further away it goes. The center of activity is typically the house, and everything on the property is organized in relation to that center, denoting the whole property into zones 1 – 5.
The area around the house represents zone 1, as it’s the most frequently used area of the site, while zone 5 is total wilderness, as there is no human activity there at all.
The zoning process ensures that we make the most efficient use of our time and labor while working and managing the property.
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR DESIGN:
Design tool: Permaculture zone planning
Design goal: ‘Components of the property are placed where they can be efficiently managed.’
STEP 1. Determine the different zone types that will be present on your property
- Zone 0 is the house itself. This is the central structure and the epicenter of your activities.
- Zone 1 is the immediate area around the home that starts just outside your door. This is an intensive-use space that you frequently visit each day and includes things that you use most often or require daily attention, observation, and frequent upkeep.
- Zone 2 is less intensive and less frequently visited than zone 1. Things here require your attention between once or twice a day and a couple of times per week.
- Zone 3 is known as the farming zone. This is often a place of seasonal, annual, or monthly work, and it usually requires machines to manage.
- Zone 4 is a semi-wild area that borders the wilderness. It’s the least well-managed of all zones, and you might only visit it seasonally for specific tasks.
- Zone 5 remains entirely wild and uncultivated. You don’t manage it in any way. Just go there to observe, recreate and learn.
STEP 2. Create an outline of your permaculture zones
Draw an outline of all the permaculture zones you’ll have on your property.
Note: Conceptually speaking, we think about zones as concentric circles radiating outwards from the house. However, in reality, the exact layout differs based on the topography and energies coming from outside of the site, access from the house, and your capabilities and needs.
Each site will have a unique layout of the zones.
4. Adapted to natural forces
Illustration: David Holmgren
In addition to managing the energy within the property, as permaculturists, we pay special attention to energies coming from outside the property boundaries. Specifically, incoming wild energies we don’t have any control over, such as winds, wildfire, noise, wildlife etc.…
Unlike conventional folks, we recognize that our property is part of a greater whole, the local ecosystem with its biome, the microclimate with its weather pattern, the micro-location with its human culture… Each with its positive and negative influences on our property.
Since we cannot directly affect these external energies, and they are unavoidable, we need to figure out how best to interact with them so that we can take advantage of them or at least mitigate their effects.
In dealing with these outside energies, there are three ways we can adopt:
- Block or deflect them – for example, create shields that prevent them from entering the property, e.g. a perimeter fence to exclude wildlife or windbreaks to mitigate strong winds.
- Catch and store/recycle – for example, opening up towards the sun and catching its energy, storing it in a battery bank, or opening towards the wind and catching its energy, using it for pumping water from low elevation to high elevation.
- Channel them through – for example, draining away contaminated water via culverts or sending offsite any other type of pollutant that you can’t beneficially use on the property
Once you consider these external energy flows and decide what you need to do about them, you can make informed decisions on the placement of particular design components that will help you manage them.
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR DESIGN:
Design tool: Sector Planning
Design goal: ‘Components of the property are sheltered or deliberately exposed to external wild energies’
STEP 1. Examine the outside forces
First, examine all the outside energies influencing the property. These might include, but are not limited to:
- Pollution sources
- Noise sources
- Water flows
- Sun patterns
STEP 2. Create a sector map
For each of these incoming energies, create lines that show the direction of the sector. Alternatively, you can draw pie slices, where the arc of the ‘slice’ shows the direction.
The map should have your property centered and overlaid with the visual representations of these patterns and energies.
STEP 3. Decide what you are going to do with the incoming energy
Next, decide whether or not the energy is of use. Depending on your design goals, you may want to enhance, deflect, or channel it.
STEP 4. Choose a design component that will help you manage the incoming energy
Finally, decide on the appropriate elements, activities, or systems that will either maximize the collection of the energies you do want and shield or channel away the energies you don’t want.
Illustration: Whole Systems Design
The final key characteristic of a permaculture property is that it has resilient systems allowing the farm or homestead to operate in the face of disruption.
In our design, we deliberately build redundancies for the essential property functions (for example, water supply) so that we have backups and even backups for our backups, thus eliminating weak links that could jeopardize our operation.
In practice, this means that multiple design components serve or support our critical functions.
For example, if water is a critical function for the property, we have multiple systems for water management. We might have a well and a pump tapping into an aquifer, ponds capturing surface runoff, water tanks capturing roof runoff, access to a creek, or even a municipal water supply.
There would be multiple ways to provide water for our needs, creating redundancy in achieving that function on our property.
The same applies to creating redundancies for all critical functions of the property, and we should strive to have at least two ways to serve a function. The overarching rule of thumb would be that the more essential the functions, the more backups it should have.
Additionally, to maximize efficiency and resiliency, we should select every design component with the intention that it serves as many functions as possible.
For example, a pond doesn’t just provide us with water. We can also grow food there, use it for fire protection, and create a favorable microclimate for a garden – thus serving water, fire protection, and food production functions simultaneously.
This ultimately ensures multi-functionality and overall a more resilient permaculture property!
HOW TO APPLY THIS IN YOUR DESIGN:
Design tool: Redundancy Planning
Design goal: ‘The property has inbuilt redundancies for its critical functions.’
STEP 1. Identify which functions of the property are critical
First, examine the critical functions of your property. Generally, these would be water, food, energy, fire protection, income…
STEP 2. Ensure that these critical functions are supported in two or more ways
Make sure that each important function is supported by multiple design components (elements, activities, systems). At a minimum, aim at having at least two ways to serve a function.
If possible, choose components that will be multifunctional, i.e. serve multiple functions at once.
All right, so these are the five features of a permaculture property you should plan to create in order to reap the full benefits of what permaculture offers.
This is what makes permaculture farms, homesteads, or farmsteads so unique.
1. You should create an ethical system where the property and its components operate ethically.
2. The property components should be interconnected, i.e. where the outputs of one component/element fulfill the inputs of another.
3. The property should be made energy efficient by placing the components of the property where you can efficiently manage them.
4. You should adapt your design components according to natural forces coming outside of the property boundaries.
5. The property should have inbuilt redundancies for its critical functions.
Now it’s your turn to use the practical design tools I gave you in this post and make your property unique!
I’ll talk to you soon.